Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: BCS (page 1 of 1)

revisiting Saul

After further reflection: I’m the mark. The easy mark. It pains me to say so, but I fell for it. Jimmy didn’t change — didn’t change at all; but he made me think he did. You got me, Jimmy. You’re good, man.

You have to play the cards you’re dealt, and Jimmy was dealt some very bad cards. But in the end, during that final courtroom scene, he played them beautifully — he worked a simultaneous double con.

Con one: To make the court — and ultimately the public, when the news is out —  believe that he was the real mastermind behind the Heisenberg drug empire. Sure, he could’ve taken the seven years in cushy prison that he negotiated: but that would have meant being portrayed as a small-timer, a minor player in a game full of bigger players (Walt, Gus, Lalo). Not the deal he wants. So he trades in those seven years for a life sentence — but a life sentence in which he is forever known as the genius, the power behind the throne, the Big Player who had simply been disguised as, in the words of Betsy Kettleman, “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire” — and poor guilty people at that.

Con two: He makes absolutely certain that Kim is there, because at the same time that he is testifying to his own artistry and skill he also works to convince Kim that he has been moved by her example to become a brave truth-teller. (With the Sphinx-like Kim you can never be sure, but I’m inclined to think that she buys it. I don’t think she’d have visited him in prison otherwise.) Note that this idea — that Kim’s courage in making her affidavit stung his conscience and impelled him to reveal his real importance — also works for the public narrative: it makes his claim that he was the real mastermind feel like a confession rather than a boast.

Anyway: it’s fabulous! — the two parts moving in opposite directions, like a complex mechanism that opens one door even as it closes another. He cons the court and the public in one direction while conning Kim in the other. And life in prison is just the price he has to pay for executing that brilliant move. His satisfaction is in knowing that he is the absolute master of his chosen craft. That’s something he can meditate on for the next forty years or so. With or without ice cream.



In this last season of Better Call Saul, we see Jimmy becoming more reckless in ways that seem both self-endangering and dangerous to others. By recruiting an obviously unsuitable amateur like Jeff into his final series of cons, he is simply begging to get caught, and when it doesn’t look like Jeff is going to be quite as inept as one might have expected, Jimmy starts taking strange chances himself – for instance, breaking into the cancer-sufferer’s house and then lingering there in order to steal items that will ensure an immediate police involvement. (Note: As it turns out, Jeff is plenty incompetent after all.)

But as I say, this is not just about Jimmy endangering Jimmy. It’s important to note that he has never been one for physical violence. Even when, in an earlier season, he gets beaten up by a trio of young punks, when he takes his revenge on them he only scares them. They don’t even get hit. Violence is definitely not Jimmy’s thing. But in the penultimate episode we see him edging closer to it: preparing to smash an urn over the head of the drunken cancer-sufferer, and then advancing on poor Marion with her telephone cord as though preparing to strangle her with it. When he realizes what he’s doing with Marion he stops himself, but in the case of the cancer-sufferer, it’s only external circumstances – the guy falls asleep – that prevents Jimmy from bashing his head in.

It’s also worth noting that Jimmy has seen what that urn is: It contains the ashes of the man’s beloved dog, so to hit him with that, not just breaking the urn but scattering the ashes over the man and his house, would be an act of extraordinary emotional, as well as physical, cruelty. Jimmy really does seem to be tracking towards genuine sociopathy – a tendency that we’ve seen in him before, for instance when he manipulated a panel of judges into believing that he was broken-hearted about his brother’s death and then, afterward, mocking them for their emotion. (He appears never to have noticed that Kim – the woman he loves – had been feeling the same emotion and is shocked to hear him speak so callously of it.)

But in the final episode he takes that sociopathy to a new level. After he’s been arrested, he seeks an encounter with Marie Schrader – still grieving the murder of her husband, a murder for which Jimmy was partly responsible – and in a conference room with a bunch of lawyers gives her a sob story about how he too is a victim of Walter White. When a prosecutor asks him whether he thinks a jury will buy that line, Jimmy instantly snaps out of his sob-story pathetic-victim mode and says, with colossal smugness, “I only need one.” He’s not even pretending, with this poor shellshocked widow sitting right across from him, to give a rat’s ass about the death of her husband. His performance was not staged for her but for the prosecutor. She was just a prop, a necessary prop in the game of getting his inevitable prison sentence reduced. And it works.

It’s immediately after this encounter that Jimmy learns that Kim has confessed everything that she and Jimmy did to Howard Hamlin. And we are asked to believe that this is such a shock to Jimmy’s system that he does an absolute 180: from descending into self-destructive sociopathy, he instantly transforms into a man who is willing to confess everything and spend the rest of his life, maybe forty years or more, in prison. He does everything except declaim “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.”

Better Call Saul Ending Saul Podium jpg

Does that strike you as a plausible event? As this episode reminds us, as the entire series never fails to insist to us, Jimmy is a con man deep in his bones. As Walter White says to him in a flashback scene in this episode, “So you’ve always been this way.” And he has! He has always been this way. Are we really to believe that Kim’s confession, all by itself, would have the power to produce a complete reversal of character in such a person?

I just can’t buy it. Jimmy has seen Kim act with integrity many times. He has seen her quit her life as a lawyer out of guilt and shame, and refuse the large sum of money she was owed from the Sandpiper settlement. Indeed, her refusing that money is something that, when they were signing their divorce papers, he openly mocked her for. Over and over again he has seen Kim take a principled stand – not always, because Kim loves Con Life also, is always excited by it. But eventually, when the chips are down, she has regularly chosen the more principled path over the more self-gratifying one, and Jimmy has seen that every time – and it has never had any effect on him whatsoever. Now it’s supposed to change his life in the most radical way possible?

I could imagine Jimmy going through with his seven years in federal prison and feeling that in that way he had owned up to his past, had owned up to his deeds. I could see him even taking the tougher prison instead of the cushy one he had originally negotiated for himself. Chuck McGill believes that people don’t change; I believe that they do, but this radically, this instantaneously? The idea that Jimmy McGill at the end of it all would become a self-sacrificing speaker of the Truth … I just can’t get there. It feels like a massive misstep by the show at the worst possible time — an easy, cheap consolation from a show that has typically denied us such consolations.

UPDATE: Brad East offers an alternative take, intelligent as always. I’m sure I will return to this eventually, when time allows!

thoughts, nearing the end

Better Call Saul Season 6 Episode 12 Review Saul Goodman Advertisement Gene jpg

The shot above is — in context — one of the most amazing things this amazing show has done.

If Rhea Seehorn doesn’t win an Emmy, there should be riots in the streets.

If Carol Burnett doesn’t win an Emmy, there should also be riots in the streets. Burnett, as famous as she is, has been an utter revelation as Marion.

Everything is unraveling fast, and it started unraveling when Francesca told Jimmy that Kim had called (in the aftermath of his disappearance at the end of Breaking Bad) to see if he was alive. That led him to call Kim, and that spectacularly disastrous decision led both of them to actions that will define the conclusion of the story they share.

Kim tells Jimmy that he should turn himself in, which infuriates him: he tells her that if she has a guilty conscience she should turn herself in — which she does. The chief effect Jimmy’s call has on Kim is to make her realize that all her attempts to finish the business of her life with Jimmy have proved unsuccessful — business remains, and that business is confession and atonement.

Meanwhile, in his rage Jimmy takes the opposite path: he resumes his downward spiral. He had dragged Jeff into a con because Jeff, a former resident of Albuquerque, had recognized him as Saul Goodman; once Jeff has committed a felony Jimmy can command his silence. He’s done with Jeff — until the phone call. Now — perhaps because he sees that he can never reconnect with Kim — he quickly becomes the worst version of himself, both unprecedentedly malicious and unprecedentedly careless. Once before he had unwisely gotten involved with “amateurs,” as Mike (in a flashback scene) calls Walt and Jesse, but then he was led by arrogance — he boasted that when he looked at Walt he saw 170 pounds of clay to sculpt; now he’s getting involved with amateurs again, but this time he’s driven by despair.

When Jeff recognized “Saul,” Jimmy called the Disappearer — but then, in mid-call, decided, “I’ll take care of this myself.” That may prove to be one of the unwisest decisions in a life full of unwise decisions. I don’t think he can make that call again. And I don’t think there’s a way out for him.

I’ll make two predictions for the finale. One, that everything will end, however it ends, for Jimmy and Kim alike, in Albuquerque; and second, that we’ll see one more flashback to Jimmy and Chuck — maybe in their childhood. Because Chuck understood his brother all along, understood him better than anyone. Several seasons back, he told Kim the necessary truth: “My brother is not a bad person. He has a good heart. It’s just … he can’t help himself. And everyone’s left picking up the pieces.” To her great misery, Kim found out just how right Chuck was. And she’s trying, one last time, to pick up those pieces.

two varieties of human frailty

Breaking Bad is a story about ressentiment; about a man who feels himself marginalized and neglected, powerless and ineffectual, who, therefore, cannot resist the temptation to establish himself as a Power — as a man who says, and means it: “I am the one who knocks.”

Better Call Saul dramatizes a radically different form of human frailty: the temptation of the con. The person so tempted may be socially marginal or socially dominant or something in between — though the marginal will have a few more incentives pushing them towards scamming. What’s at work here is not ressentiment but rather (a) a desire to dominate people, a desire to know what they don’t know and act on that knowledge in a way that enables you to triumph over them, and (a) the intellectual challenge of building a successful scam: the meticulous planning, the anticipation of the responses of your marks, the ability to improvise when things go wrong. What you see in Better Call Saul is, first, how the power of these two motives — the desire to dominate and the love of intellectual challenge —  vary from person to person, and within a person from moment to moment; and also the crack-like addictiveness that follows upon the running of a successful scam.

Both shows then are about extremes of human frailty — frailty become perversity, perversity become wickedness — and how inescapable the associated habits of thought and action can be.

BCS 610 GL 1019 0051 RT70 jpg

what’s done

Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done, is done.

As regular visitors to this blog know, I recently read the four extant volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and if there is a single message that Caro hammers relentlessly home it’s this: LBJ was a titanically horrible person – mean, vindictive, cruel, thieving – who nevertheless made vital things happen (electricity in the Texas Hill Country, massive national civil rights legislation) that would have been delayed a decade or longer if anyone else but him had been manipulating the levers of power. And then Caro leaves you, the reader, to decide whether you’re okay with the trade-off. Whether the good outweighs the bad.

Which brings us to the final season of Better Caul Saul, and particularly the ninth episode of the season, which explicitly calls into question our usual practices of double-entry moral bookkeeping.

Throughout the series, but especially in the last couple of seasons, we have seen the two sides of Kim Wexler: on one hand the woman who enjoys, with her lover and then husband Jimmy McGill (AKA Saul Goodman), con-artist “Fun and Games” – the bitterly ironic title of this episode – and on the other hand a dedicated public defender, a friend of the friendless, a skilled lawyer who even when she worked for a fancy law firm insisted on leaving plenty of time to do pro bono work for the insulted and the injured. Doesn’t the good outweigh the bad?

Season 6 episode 9 is the moment when Kim decides that the answer is No. Or rather: It’s the wrong question, the wrong system of accounting. She’s not willing to do the comparative weighing any more. She doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but she won’t do that.

BCS 609 GL 0920 0651 RT copy jpg

Almost simultaneously, Mike Ehrmantraut visits the father of Nacho Varga, the young drug dealer and servant of the cartel who died in the third episode of this season. Mike wants to tell Mr. Varga that his son “had a good heart,” that he wasn’t like the other criminals, “not really.” Mike is surely thinking of his own son, whom he taught to be a crooked cop; and perhaps of himself also. But Mr. Varga isn’t having it. “You gangsters,” he says. “You’re all the same.” He won’t participate in double-entry accounting. And, along the same lines, he scorns Mike’s claim that “justice” will come to the Salamanca family at whose hands Nacho died. He knows that it’s mere vengeance.

“What’s done can be undone.” That’s what Jimmy/Saul says when Kim rejects the balancing act she’s been performing for almost the entire series. But the entire message of this fictional world — from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul — is that it can’t be. Lady Macbeth knew: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Thus we’re all left to pick up the pieces, if we can. No system of accounting can rescue us from that dark obligation.

Saul: season 5, comment 1

Spoilers ahead.

Better call saul2

Watching the first episode of Season 5 of Better Call Saul, something occurred to me: This story isn’t about Jimmy any more. It’s about Kim. (And, in an only slightly less serious way, about Mike and Nacho.) The metamorphosis has occurred: Jimmy McGill is Saul Goodman. There’s no way back for him. The guy who was always, and would always be, “Chuck McGill’s loser brother” is dead. Saul may have some fascinating adventures from here on out, but his character arc is complete. The key question that remains is: How can Kim extricate herself from her entanglement with him?

One of the key moments in the entire series came in the final episode of Season 4, when Jimmy, arguing before a committee of attorneys for the restoration of his license to practice law, makes a moving speech about his desire to honor his late brother. The members of the committee are touched; Kim’s eyes well up. And then, afterwards, when Jimmy learns that his license has been restored, Kim begins to tell Jimmy how much his speech touched her, only to have him leap in to say, “Did you see those suckers? That one asshole was crying. He had actual tears!” Rhea Seehorn should win an Emmy simply for the look on her face when Kim hears those words.

From this point on we know that Jimmy is, functionally if not intrinsically, a sociopath. The problem for Kim is that she is not wholly unlike him. We know from earlier seasons that their relationship was largely built on their mutual fondness for scams, their pleasure taken in turning people into marks. And here at the beginning of Season 5, there’s one more chance for a scam. One of Kim’s clients — in her public defender work — needs to take the plea deal offered by the D.A. But he won’t. He wants to go to trial because thinks he can charm the jury and get off. Kim can’t talk him out of it.

And then Jimmy/Saul shows up ready to improvise a scam that will scare the client into taking the plea deal … and Kim, after forcefully telling Jimmy/Saul to bug off, ends up playing the very game he had suggested. And of course it works. The client is scared into good sense. All in a good cause, right? Everyone’s better off, right?

Maybe. But at what cost to human dignity — of the client and of Kim? She sees how easily she could go down Jimmy’s path. She feels it. But will she? And if not — how does she get out?

extremely spoilery thoughts about Better Call Saul

I’m a deeply committed fan of Better Call Saul, to the extent that after each episode I listen, hungrily, to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast. I am endlessly fascinated to learn about the enormously complex, deeply intelligent, technically sophisticated, emotionally sensitive collaborative energy that goes into making a show like this. Every time I listen I discover something about the show that I had missed, something that makes its already-powerful story even more powerful.

It’s also fun to hear how closely the actors (there’s usually, though not always, one each episode) identify with their characters, in ways that reveal them, the actors, as often insightful and sometimes unreliable. When Michael Mando explains how he sees Nacho as motivated largely by shame — shame before his honorable father — I immediately see the truth of it. When Bob Odenkirk defends Jimmy’s indefensible actions, I just shake my head in disbelief. By far the most interesting of the actors on the podcast, though, is Rhea Seehorn, who is extremely articulate in analyzing Kim but insightful into other characters as well.

In sum: the podcast is a great supplement to the show.

What follows is super-spoilery.

In a vital scene in the just-released final episode of Season 4, Jimmy McGill breaks down weeping in his car. When that scene was discussed on the podcast, I was struck by the number of participants who believe that he was finally weeping for his dead brother Chuck. No, he definitely wasn’t.

Many of the people on the podcast, regulars and guests, believe that Jimmy is in the denial stage of grief, or something like that. On the show itself, Kim seems to think the same — you can’t be sure because neither Kim nor Jimmy tends to speak what they feel — but I believe that it’s her sense that Jimmy hasn’t processed Chuck’s death that prompts her to press him to seek counseling. But when, briefly, he says he will, it’s not because of Chuck: it’s because he got mugged by some punks when trying to run a scam and he’s concerned that he’s still acting like he’s 20 years old.

In my judgment Jimmy has never grieved Chuck’s death and never will. The last words Chuck said to him were, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” And I believe that from that moment on Chuck was completely dead to Jimmy already.

So why does he cry in his car?

In the previous scene, Jimmy has sat in a conference room with a bunch of other lawyers interviewing high school students who have applied for a scholarship. Jimmy argues on behalf of a girl who had been convicted of shoplifting when younger but has put her life together; he says that at least one of their scholarships (there are three to distribute) should go to someone who isn’t perfect, who has made mistakes and triumphed over them. But that argument falls on deaf ears, and after the decision is made Jimmy catches up with the girl and gives her an impassioned speech explaining that people like her never get a fair shake and never will, and that she has to be bold, has to cut corners, has to do everything she can, no matter how ruthless, to maneuver around those people. So what, Jimmy says, if they’re sitting there on the 35th floor judging you? You don’t care because you’re gonna be on the 50th floor looking down at them.

And then he goes back to his car. His old, beat-up car, with a mismatched door, the same one he’s had since we first saw him. And, as is often the case, it won’t start. And that’s when he starts crying.

This episode begins with a flashback to Jimmy and Chuck, right after Jimmy is sworn in as a lawyer, going to a karaoke bar with friends and singing Abba’s “Winner Takes It All.” And Jimmy actually quotes that song to the girl who didn’t get the scholarship. (He doesn’t say, but he means, this line: “But I was a fool / Playing by the rules.”) The song tells us that the winner takes it all, but is also tells us that “the loser has to fall.” And what Jimmy is facing at this moment is, simply: he’s a loser. As Kim told him in a previous eposode, when he complained that she was “kicking a man when he’s down,” “Jimmy, you’re always down.” He’s not on the 50th floor looking down on anyone. He’s sitting in an old beater that won’t start, because that’s all he can afford. The loser has to fall, and does.

And I think this is the point of no return for Jimmy — the point at which it’s absolutely inevitable that he’ll become Saul Goodman, unscrupulous, lying, deceitful, dishonest, crooked as crooked can be. Because he tried, at least sometimes, playing by the rules and the result is, he’s always down. I don’t think he’ll play by the rules any more.

At the end of the episode and the season, Jimmy has just regained his law license — by faking sincerity more skillfully than he had faked it before —, and we learn that he’s not going to practice under his own name but under the name Saul Goodman. The key point is that Kim learns it at the same moment that we do. He hasn’t told her. He has shut her out, just as he had earlier shut out Chuck, though for far less reason, since Kim has been far better to him than he ever deserved. Kim now sees that there is nothing fully human behind the mask. I don’t see how she can ever trust him again.

from Welles to Saul

Here’s a passage from the Preface to my new book The Year of Our Lord 1943:

Touch of Evil, that Gothic masterpiece by Orson Welles, begins with the most famous tracking shot in the history of cinema. In muted light, we see a close-up of a kitchen timer attached to what appears to be an explosive device, held in a man’s hands. The camera pulls back to show him darting towards a nearby automobile: he sets the time — it looks like around three minutes — then furtively drops the device in the car’s trunk and scampers off. We are, we now see, in a city at night. The camera remains focused on the car as an oldish man and a young woman get into it and drive away. The camera pulls back to the rooftops and tracks backwards ahead of the car, which is soon stopped by some goats in the road. As various people move in and out of the frame, the camera continues its retreat and soon picks up a couple walking down the street. Eventually the car, having overcome its obstacles, re-enters the frame; its driver and the couple come simultaneously to a border crossing. Conversation ensues with the border patrol. When the car is waved through, it passes out of the frame; the camera stays with the couple as they embrace. Then their kiss is interrupted by the blast and flash of an explosion.

I have imitated Welles in this book. A chapter or section begins with one figure, whose ideas and writings are explored. Then, at a point when those ideas intersect, thematically and (roughly) temporally, with those of another figure, the focus shifts. We remain with that thinker for a while, then link to a third. Eventually the one with which we began rejoins the scene. The lives of the people who populate this book only rarely meet, or even correspond; but their ideas circulate from one to another constantly. It is this circulation I have tried to capture by an eccentric means of narration. What might correspond to the explosive device of Welles’s film I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Obviously I have thought about this scene quite a bit — which makes it more annoying to me that when I first watched an episode (208) of my favorite current TV show, Better Call Saul, I missed an absolutely brilliant homage to it. Here’s the scene, which begins, of course, at a USA-Mexico border crossing:

Single Shot Scene from “Better Call Saul” – “Fifi” (S2E8) from qiu on Vimeo.

Amazing stuff. I found online an interview with the director, Tom Schnauz, in which he doesn’t mention Welles. Let’s just let the homage be our secret, then.